Fit to Surf


SURFING IS FOR THE ADVENTUROUS. Public perception may even frame surfing as a dangerous sport, considering the combination of marine life, shallow waters, tumultuous tides and currents, and sharp reefs. Surfers take a risk every time they paddle out. Still, most surfers don’t think twice and hop on their board for the next awesome swell. In fact, studies are now showing that athletics like soccer and basketball have higher injury rates. In a study led by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown Medical School, they found that competitive surfing has 6.6 significant injuries per 1,000 hours of surfing. But, while surfing may be considered the “safer” sport, it has its fair share of hazards. The most common injuries for both competitive and recreational surfing are sprains and strains to the lower extremities, contusions, and lac- erations. In this same study they found that 42 percent of reported surfing injuries were acute, relating to contusions (13 percent), sprains and strains (12 percent), and fractures (8 percent). Forty-five percent of injuries resulted from con- tact with one’s own board, 12 percent from another surfer’s board, and 17 percent with the ocean floor. And, of course, with an increase in expertise comes a higher danger factor of waves a surfer will ride—the injury rate more than doubles as a result of direct correlation between wave height and the energy of the wave. In other words, the bigger, more powerful waves are where the most injuries occur.

No one wants to get injured while having fun or competing for, say, the Triple Crown. So what can be done to reduce the risk of these most common surfing injuries?


Wipeouts, excessive paddling, popular surfing spots, and big drops all have something in common: they are hotbeds of surfing injuries.

WIPEOUT! Falling off the surfboard is no fun, especially when followed by a thud. Whether it be reef, rock, or sand, any blunt force trauma can cause a minor to serious injury,the type and extent of which depends on the surfer’s position and contact area. Injuries associated with wipeouts include: over-flexion/extension of the lumbar or cervical spine; landing on the shoulder, which can cause trauma to the acromioclavicular (ac) joint; fraction to the clavicle or the shoulder being forced into subluxation or dislocation; and head trauma, such as concussions. That noggin can only take so much of a beating, and while sand may be soft when dry, wet sand is like pavement—especially when you add a few tons of water above you.

EXCESSIVE PADDLING. Nothing is better payoff than catching that sweet wave and hanging 10 after a long paddle out to the break. But be careful of how much you paddle. Shoulders are the most vulnerable joint to overuse. Injuries can include rotator-cuff impingement, tendonitis, poor posture from years of paddling causing low back pain, disc degenera- tion in neck and lower back, and decrease in range of motion.

CROWD SURFING. The most severe surf injuries are caused by the surfboard. The fins, the nose and the tail can hit your head, eyes, lips or ears. Even experts like Jack O’Neill aren’t immune to such injuries. (Jack lost his eye in 1971 in a surfing accident involving one of the first ever surf leashes.) So, be careful when surfing popular surf spots and be sure to observe surfing etiquette.

BIG DROPS are awesome. The rush that goes through my body when I finally catch the wave, pop up and start to carve is intoxicating. But be careful. When standing up on fast, steep waves, your feet can land off center, putting excessive rotational or medial/lateral force through knees or ankles, leading to acute knee and ankle ligament and joint surface injuries such as sprains, strains and dislocations.

Wipeout! Photo: Kookson

Wipeout! Photo: Kookson


WARM UP Before Hitting the Cold Water. Surfers are notoriously bad at warming up, but 10 minutes of loosening up before jumping in the water can make a big difference in performance and injury prevention. Include movements and mobility drills that replicate some of the movements of surfing. This may look dorky but it beats the alternative of being injured.

For increased spinal mobility, practice your pop ups, twist from side to side at the waist to rotate the spine, do simple toe touches, and extend your arms and reach above your head. Slow, long-hold stretches have actually been shown to “shut-off” muscles and decrease their contraction times. The key to a quality surf-training warm up is using movements to increase the heart rate, release tight tissues, lubricate joints and excite the nervous system.

GREATER AWARENESS OF SURROUNDINGS. Pay attention to the other surfers in your surroundings. Follow appropriate surf etiquette to avoid any unfortunate run-ins with others’ equipment. Also, research the break, know your limits and tap all the local knowledge you can. Being pre- pared always helps. Lacerations can be avoided with a good wetsuit and by not taking too many risks near a jetty or in a reef break. Assess the risks before you take them. You don’t have to be a daredevil to be a hero.

SPORTS-SPECIFIC TRAINING. Core is king when it comes to protecting the back. There is a lot of information out there about how to do core work, but be aware that it is important to know how well you activate your core muscles, such as the Transverse Abdominus, before starting exercises that may be too difficult. Good exercises to activate your core are planks and the use of stability balls and balance boards, just to name a few. Surfing requires endurance as well as short bursts of energy, so workouts should include balance and single-leg exercises, full-body movements, and shoulder and upper back exercises. For shoulders, specifically, the most important thing you can do is work on the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder and the key ones known as your rotator cuff. These muscles are activated best with low weights and high reps using internal and external rotation of the shoulder. This kind of training will help to stop the big bulky muscles like your deltoids from pulling your humerus bone out of position and nipping soft tissue, allowing you to paddle longer without pain.

FLEXIBILITY. A surfer’s flexibility is very important to both injury prevention and performance. Contrary to popular belief, keeping the back mobile within pain-free thresholds is the key to optimizing recovery time between surf sessions. Hands-on treatment such as massage is also helpful. Some yoga poses that ensure results are warrior poses and sun salu- tations. Surfing is all about being one with the water and one with nature, but don’t forget to be one with yourself. Being in tune with your body is key to staying fit and maintaining your ability to surf that one last wave before the next session.

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